[FoRK] MotorTrend shootout
rohit at ics.uci.edu
Thu Jul 22 01:07:01 PDT 2004
Three Kings: 2004 Cadillac XLR vs. 2003 Lexus SC 430 vs. 2003
Cadillac's brand-new '04 XLR roadster takes on the Lexus SC 430 and the
Mercedes-Benz SL500 in a battle royal for the hardtop-convertible
throne. Yes, heads roll.
By Arthur St. Antoine
Photography by John Kiewicz
Motor Trend, July 2003
Kings are great. Kings are powerful. Kings are rare. Kings get all the
attention. Kings get all the girls. Kings park up front. Kings rule.
Yes, it's good to be the king--unless another king butts in with his
crown jewels. Then somebody's gonna lose his head.
An audacious American newcomer stakes its claim to a niche ruled by
Cadillac's newest claimant to the throne has entered a rarified market
niche occupied by not one but two well-established kings. Result? A
trio of chopped-off crania. Fortunately, all three tops popped right
back on at the touch of a button. We were there to witness the
Cadillac's entry, a flagship designed to cast a halo of magnificence
upon the entire division, is the just-released '04 XLR. This is an
all-new rear-drive two-door roadster with a power-retractable hardtop,
a lusty Northstar V-8, more electronic wonders than you'd find in Bill
Gates' rumpus room, and a composite body as crisp and creased as a
Number 10 envelope. The XLR also lifts the price ceiling for Cadillacs
into an unvisited stratosphere: base sticker is $76,250.
Ahead in the line for the throne are two rivals with strikingly similar
resumes. Like the XLR, the Lexus SC 430 and the Mercedes-Benz SL500 are
rear-drive two-door roadsters with power hardtops, mighty V-8s, and
whiz-bang gadgets. The SC and the SL are adored by their subjects, too:
Last year, Lexus and Mercedes sold roughly 14,000 each. If those
figures don't impress, consider that the SC 430 starts at $62,600 and
the SL500 hits the cash register running at a cool $86,710.
Cadillac has come prepared. The XLR is the most far-reaching automobile
to emerge from GM's luxury division since the Northstar-engined '93
Seville STS. With a pricetag nearly $14,000 more than the Lexus', the
XLR doesn't even play the usual American value card. Instead, the XLR
is a no-compromises swing for the fences--a car built to meet and beat
the world's best in a straight fight.
Now, off with their heads!
2003 Lexus SC 430
The SC 430 is the refinement leader in this already polished group.
Unveiled in the '02 model year (and Lexus' first convertible), the SC
430 proved an instant sensation. On the sunny, self-conscious SoCal
streets that surround MT headquarters, SC 430s are as plentiful as tofu
stands and Oscar-aspiring barmaids.
Press a single switch, and the folding hardtop of the SC 430 whirs down
and into the trunk in less than 25 seconds.
The SC 430 is the refinement leader in this exceedingly polished group.
The suspension creams over the road, the engine purrs, the five-speed
automatic shifts without a ripple, and the cabin's switches and knobs
send soothing messages to your fingertips. The steering wheel is a
gorgeous wood-and-leather model, exquisitely stitched leather wraps
every nook and cranny, and warm wood adorns the console and the
dash--including pop-up doors that conceal the standard GPS navigation
screen and the controls for the Mark Levinson audio system.
We're less enamored of the SC's exterior, one of those nontoxic,
"organic" shapes that looks neither unattractive nor memorable. And
while none of these three roadsters is generous with cargo space
(folded hardtops take up more room than Geraldo Rivera's ego), the SC's
trunk seems designed for, maybe, a banana. Fortunately, the SC 430
offers optional run-flat tires that eliminate the need for the
space-stealing spare, and it has the group's only rear seat--which can
carry briefcases or even golf bags.
With a 32-valve four-cam 4.3-liter V-8 equipped with variable valve
timing and delivering 300 horsepower at 5600 rpm, the SC can sprint
0-60 mph in just 6.75 seconds. Alas, the tuned-for-comfort suspension
is less eager to play hero: The Lexus posted just 0.78 g on the skidpad
and came home third in our braking and slalom tests.
At an as-tested price of $63,884, the SC 430 is this group's value
leader. For many buyers, the words "bargain-priced Lexus" might be all
the convincing they need.
The leather-and-wood-lined cabin is a paradigm of luxury and civility,
featuring handsome shapes, astutely arranged controls, and a level of
craftsmanship second to none.
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500
Classic? Oh, yes: Mercedes-Benz has been building SLs for 50 years.
Though redesigned in '02, the SL500 remains a classic. The SL's shape
is both modern and nostalgic, sharing an unmistakable resemblance to
the 300SL from five decades earlier
The SL500 needs but 16 seconds to transform from streamlined hardtop
coupe to exhilarating alfresco roadster.
The cabin has every imaginable luxury, including an optional Keyless Go
system that allows pushbutton engine starting if a coded key card is
inside the vehicle (say, in the driver's pocket).
The SOHC 5.0-liter V-8 ripples with 302 horsepower at 5600 rpm--enough
to propel the SL from zero to 60 mph in 6.67 seconds. Moreover, the SL
delivers its class-leading 339 lb-ft of torque at just 2700 rpm--even
at 4045 pounds, the Benz needs only a nudge of the throttle to hustle
forward. Our test car, equipped with optional 18-inch AMG wheels and
high-performance tires, also posted the most grip in the group--0.85
g--and ran the slalom 2.5 mph faster than the second-place XLR.
The SL is brimming with safety systems. A rollbar automatically deploys
if the top is down and the vehicle exceeds a programmed tilt limit.
Electro-hydraulic brakes (the world's first) are said to deliver better
stops than conventional systems. Active body control helps reduce ride
motions and allows the driver to select a firmer suspension setting, if
You'll pay for such royal treatment, though. Base sticker is a
group-high $86,710--and it climbs quickly from there. Our test car,
equipped with such options as the Comfort, Wood, and Sport packages,
rolled out the door for $100,360. Sure, you could buy a small house for
that. But you wouldn't live nearly as well.
The cockpit includes four hooded primary instruments that recall the
classic designs of the '50s. Mercedes' COMAND system integrates audio,
navigation, and optional cell-phone into one central display.
Previous12 3 45Next
2004 Cadillac XLR
The 320-horse XLR does 0-60 mph in an impressive 6.25 seconds.
From now on, people are likely to talk about Cadillac as "pre-XLR" or
"post-XLR." While Cadillacs in the past decade have showcased styling
or performance or technology, the XLR is the first model that fully and
successfully integrates the automaker's ambitious forays in all three
directions. The result is a unique and flavorful "new Cadillac," a car
in many ways unlike anything else on the road.
The XLR's folding top is the slowpoke in this group, but it still needs
fewer than 30 seconds to work its hardtop-to-roadster magic.
The numbers speak volumes. Compared with the SC and the SL, the XLR has
the longest wheelbase by almost three inches--yet, thanks to snug
overhangs front and rear, it's the shortest in length. The XLR is the
widest and lowest, and it's a good 200 pounds lighter than the Lexus
and 400 pounds lighter than the Benz. Engine output, 320 horsepower at
6400 rpm, is the best of the trio. At 24 mpg, the XLR delivers the best
EPA highway fuel-economy rating, too.
That David Hill, vehicle line executive for GM's Performance Cars,
presided over development of the XLR is telling: Hill is also chief
engineer for the Corvette. In fact, the XLR is based on the same
next-generation architecture as the forthcoming C6 Vette. Composed of
steel hydroformed frame rails, an aluminum cockpit structure, and
composite floors with balsa-wood cores, this advanced structure is
lightweight and exceptionally stiff.
The XLR's DOHC 32-valve 4.6-liter V-8 is the first Northstar to be used
in a longitudinal rear-drive layout. To make it fit, the water pump had
to be moved to the front of the engine--a seemingly innocuous change
that necessitated reworking all the V-8's water jackets. "We completely
redesigned the block and heads," says John Zinser, GM Powertrain
Northstar chief engineer. The XLR V-8 also incorporates such Northstar
firsts as electronic throttle control and variable valve timing.
The XLR's transmission, a five-speed automatic, is mounted at the rear
for improved weight distribution. It includes a semi-manual
sequential-shift feature that allows the driver to change gears simply
by nudging the lever fore or aft.
The XLR interior is graced with superb leather buckets, handsome
eucalyptus-wood insets, and patterned-aluminum accents. Almost every
imaginable convenience is standard, including GPS navigation, heated
and cooled seats, a voice-activated telephone, a spectacular Bose
stereo with additional headrest speakers, and gauges designed in
concert with famed Italian jeweler Bulgari. The only option is an XM
The XLR includes a head-up display that projects basic instrument
information onto the windshield and works more effectively than any
we've seen before. Shift into semi-manual transmission mode, for
instance, and your chosen gear conveniently materializes alongside the
digital speedo that normally appears by itself.
Like the SL500, the XLR features an adaptive cruise-control system that
uses a forward-mounted radar unit to maintain a selected distance
between you and the car ahead. And while a keyless ignition system is
optional on the SL, on the XLR it's standard. In fact, the XLR is truly
keyless--there are no key holes in the doors or the ignition. Simply
pocket the key fob, and you can open the doors or start the engine at
the push of a button. (Cadillac does include a key in case of a
complete electronic failure--there's a small keyhole hidden in the
As chiseled as a stealth fighter, the XLR is as high-tech as one,
too--featuring a head-up digital-instruments display,
magnetic-electronic active suspension, keyless operation, and a central
At the test track, the XLR proved true to its performance-car pedigree.
Fastest to 60 mph (6.25 seconds), best 0-100-0 time, and second best on
the skidpad (0.83 g) and in the slalom--despite relatively skinny
all-season run-flat tires. Pushed hard on the road, the XLR makes
thrilling noises as the Northstar nears its 6700-rpm redline, and the
suspension returns a remarkable combination of handling quickness and
fluid ride control. Credit the XLR's magnetic ride-control system,
which automatically adjusts shock damping to handle changing road
conditions and driver inputs. Asked if Cadillac has any plans to
introduce a rumored sport package, XLR chief engineer David Leone
replied simply, "We think the XLR is where it ought to be right now."
We remain impressed by the uncompromising quality and finesse that's
evident throughout the Lexus SC 430. Many spas aren't this relaxing.
Yet the car leaves us hungering for more flavor and driving excitement.
This isn't an automobile that'll inspire you to sneak to the garage at
night just to smile at its lines. Nor will its ultra-competent moves
set your synapses afire. The SC, instead, is the ultimate in splendid
isolation--and more than 14,000 buyers annually couldn't be happier.
It's difficult to conceal our admiration for the Mercedes-Benz SL500.
Few automobiles do so many things so well--or look so good doing them.
From its timeless lines to its Pullman-car cabin to its effortless,
exhilarating performance, the SL stirs the senses even as it soothes
the soul--a remarkable achievement that justifies its steep admission
price. Status is obviously a huge purchase consideration, too: for many
shoppers in this imperial market niche, only the three-pointed star
Yet here comes the Cadillac XLR, a car brimming with personality,
performance, and astutely integrated, leading-edge technology. Does it
take the crown from the SL500? Final answer: not quite. The SL has
ingot-like fit and finish, and it radiates a poise and sophistication
that, frankly, we'd expect of a company that's been building SLs for
half a century. Yet that only emphasizes Cadillac's achievement. The
XLR is a world-class roadster that, right out of the box, is nipping at
the heels of one of the most legendary two-seaters in the business.
Factor in the XLR's $10,000-plus price advantage, and it's a safe bet
that Cadillac should have no trouble selling the 5000 or so XLRs it's
aiming to build this year.
For now, the Mercedes-Benz SL500 remains on top. But the arrival of the
Cadillac XLR proves an age-old adage: It may be great to be king, but
you're never safe on the throne. Just ask Elvis.
Lexus SC 430
·Full-bodied Northstar engine
·Daring stealth-fighter shape
·Vault-like solidity and security
·Cheesy plastic covers in airdam
·Untested Cadillac price realm
·Occasional structural shimmies
·Mt. Everest sticker
·Letting someone else drive
Multitalented chassis with StabiliTrak and magnetic ride control.
A 240-watt Mark Levinson audio system better than your living room's.
In the quest for safety, the SL even has an airbag for the driver's
Cadillac aims for roadster brilliance--and hits the bull's eye.
The standard in open-air quality and refinement.
If it made you a martini after your drive, it'd be about perfect.
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